Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview National Championship game vs. Alabama
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Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview National Championship game vs. Alabama

Kirby Smart
Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

UGA football head coach Kirby Smart and two players, Stetson Bennett and Derion Kendrick, spoke with the media on Monday about the College Football Playoff National Championship against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Georgia and Alabama will square off on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. (Buy Tickets). The game will be televised by ESPN at 8:00pm ET.

Below is a transcript of the National Championship game press conference which was provided by ASAP Sports.

KIRBY SMART

COACH SMART: Indianapolis has been the spot of a lot of national championships I’ve been able to watch growing up, and excited to play in such a great venue. And sounds like we’re fortunate we’re not playing outside based on the weather that I’m hearing about.

Our guys are excited and being excited to work and really take another shot and go play these guys. And got a lot of respect for Alabama and Coach Saban and everything they’ve been able to do. And we know that we’ve got to play one of our best games and our guys are excited for the opportunity.

Q. What is it about the leadership skills of great linebackers, I’m talking about Nakobe in your case, but are you aware of Will Anderson Jr., and they play similar roles for these two teams. Could you expand on that topic?

COACH SMART: I think that position is a position that ties the front to the back. And when you’re in the middle kind of it takes extreme toughness to play at that position. And you’ve got to have some coverage skills. You’ve got to understand the defense inside and out.

You certainly can become a very good leader. If you had a quarterback on defense, I think it would be at the linebacker position because they make so many calls.

And Will, certainly, does that. He’s an exceptional rusher, twitchy, plays so hard, high motor, physical toughness. A lot of the same things you can say about Nakobe, although they play different positions.

Q. Could you talk about the dynamics of playing an opponent two times in close proximity? I think you were part of that with Alabama and LSU and certainly in a game of this magnitude. And second part, if you could touch on this, you alluded after the game, talking about Alabama had a five- or six-hour start getting ready for this game. I think you’ve been on both ends of that as well. Is that a true advantage, even those few hours can make a difference?

COACH SMART: I don’t know that it makes a huge difference when there’s a normal space between the game. We played in a unique situation the last time we played them with the Rose Bowl turnaround, the national championship was extremely short. And with the Rose Bowl not changing their date it made for a West Coast flight that was a really, really, really quick turnaround.

We actually played the earlier game in that scenario. And they played the later game. But the turnaround was quicker. This turnaround is a little different because of the amount of time in between them. I was just referencing that we finished a little bit later and didn’t get home until the next day.

But when you’re playing a rematch game, I think a lot can go into it in terms of you’ve got to be careful because you’ve got things and games in your breakdown that might change this game in terms of we didn’t have the SEC Championship game, obviously, in our breakdown, then the playoff game. And what tendencies changed, what matchups we’re looking for, who is in, who is out.

There’s a lot of things that go into it. But at the end of the day, you’re really not as worried about what they’re doing; you’re worried about what you’re doing and how well you can do that is the most important part.

Q. Your guys responded well to the tough loss against Alabama. Is it harder to have the same edge coming off a game where everything went right, or is given that everything is on the line, is that an issue at all?

COACH SMART: You’re saying coming off of playing well? How does that affect this game?

Q. Because they were coming off a loss that they had maybe more of an edge wanting to prove something that they were as good as they showed earlier in the year.

COACH SMART: We’re focused on playing them and this game is irrelevant of the game we just played. And it’s really separate from the SEC Championship, other than obviously will be using that tape to look at matchups and look at tendencies and things.

But we’re certainly — we’ve worked really hard the last, whatever, 30 days at getting better at us. And it was never about Michigan or Alabama or Cincinnati. It was about us. It doesn’t change on who your opponent is. You try to scheme to find matchups. But at the end of the day we’ve been trying to get our players better regardless of who we were going to play.

Q. Just double-check on Brock Bowers, you touched on him. He dinged his shoulder a little bit a couple of weeks ago. Any further word on him?

COACH SMART: He’s good. He was good in the game. That same shoulder has bothered him all year, to be honest. It’s not like it’s something new that just came up. It bothers him from time to time at practice.

It happens to a lot of our players, to be honest with you. I had it when I played. It’s something you have to just deal with and in the offseason we’ll get a look at it, see if it needs to be repaired surgically or whether or not it’s something that he can rehab and continue to strengthen the muscles around it.

But he’s a football player. It’s not going to go away in season. A lot of our guys are dealing with that.

Q. Question about the dynamic that Alabama occupies, the mental space it occupies in the heads of either you, your coaching staff, your players, the Crimson Tide has taken on a bogeyman quality for Georgia in that they’re the benchmark to which often this program is compared but also one that seems to always get the best of your team. How do you handle that mental dynamic whether you’re preparing your athletes to play them for a second time in such a short time span?

COACH SMART: First off, what is the bogeyman? What did you reference it as?

Q. I said Alabama is a bogeyman to Georgia football.

COACH SMART: I don’t know exactly what that is, so it’s hard for me to answer that question, other than they’ve also been a problem and a thorn for any team they’ve played besides ours. We have that in common with a lot of teams.

They’ve played they have a really good football team, really good coach, really good program. It starts with really good football players. And they’ve done a good job recruiting those. And the I think when you look at the skill set of some of the guys they’ve had come through there, and I know myself, just looking at the last two or three times we’ve played them, I think somebody said either six or seven first-round wideouts have all played.

And that skill set is pretty unique. I don’t think there’s any team in the country that’s had, however many it’s been, the run they’ve had on those. And it makes — you’ve got to play well. You’ve got to play well in the red area. You’ve got to play well situational football. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to beat good football teams. Those are things that we have done when we played them. We turned it over.

And we can’t do that. But as far as the mental capacity, mental mindset of our guys, they’re excited. They earned another opportunity to go play a really good football team. Now we’ve got a really good football team. Our guys are physical, excited and looking forward to this opportunity on the biggest stage there is.

Q. You guys didn’t get much pressure on Bryce Young in the first meeting. What can you do to change that and how important a dynamic is that in this game?

COACH SMART: It’s really important. They did a good job — number one, he did a good job of moving around in the pocket, of creating time. He’s really way more illusive than people give him credit for. Extremely good athlete. Has elite spatial awareness. He knows where people are, where his people are, where he’s protected, where he’s going with the ball beforehand.

And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And we brought a lot of different pressures. They did a good job picking those pressures up. And at the end of the day, there’s four or five guys that are one-on-one up there. Somebody’s got to win one-on-one. And a lot of times you’re better at pressure when you’re not on the field as long and you’re winning some third downs.

We had some really critical third-down losses that, hey, they didn’t beat us. We busted. And you can’t do that, not and beat a good football team. You’re giving them extra snaps every time that happens, and you can’t do that.

Q. Wanted to ask you, I think one of the remarkable things about these two programs is that obviously you recruit a lot of good players, but so many to the point where I think people will ask, wow, if you want to play early, wouldn’t it be better to go someplace else because there are so many good players on these rosters. How do you sell in recruiting even if you don’t play right away, this is still the best place for you to be surrounded by these other great players?

COACH SMART: Because the truly great players understand that no NFL scout or general manager or head coach has called me and said how much time did Roquan Smith, how much did Nakobe Dean play as a freshman. That’s not what they care about. They care about the intangibles, size-speed criteria, leadership skills, how good a football player are they in year three. That’s what they want. They start evaluating those guys really hard in year three.

You want to be the best player you can be in three years. Where do you go to do that? You go where you can compete against really good people in practice. You get millions more snaps in practice than you do in a game. So you want to go against the best, where does the best pass rusher want to go? Against the best tackles. Where does the best tackle want to go? Against the best pass rushers. Where am I going to develop the best? Where have they proven that they can take me from a really talented player to a disciplined team-buy-in, NFL-type offense and defense and special teams and they can grow?

The kids looking for that they can find that at these programs. So it’s an easier decision than you think, because it’s not just about playing early. I’ve seen a lot of guys play early and not get better and not grow, not have the same nutrition, the same strength staff. And they might not leave as good as they would have, but they played early.

I’ve seen some guys get inpatient here and there and leave and have regret over leaving because if they had stayed they would have been a better football player for staying.

Q. Obvious storyline is Kirby Smart versus Nick Saban. I know the players on the field decide it, but this is your sixth year building this program. I guess this would be your fifth straight top-10 finish. Do you embrace that, or is it something that you prefer to downplay? And in terms of just how fluid is it in game — I think we’ve seen you lead at halftime in three out of these previous four matchups. It looks like a chess match from the outside. How true would that be?

COACH SMART: It’s been games of momentum. They’ve done a good job at momentum in the second half. Each game has been different. And it will never be about he and I. I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that, because that’s for you guys to do that.

It’s about the players. It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that, the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions — the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games, not he and I.

STETSON BENNETT, QB

Q. You obviously played well pass game and then even though you all lost to Alabama the first time, what is it going to be like going against their defense for the second time? What is it looking like in practice right now in terms of prep-wise, one week from the game?

STETSON BENNETT: It’s the same schedule that we’ve been having. As to the game, what it’s going to be like, I’m not sure. They’re going to be a great team, just like they were the first time. And I think the key to it is who comes out and executes better.

Q. You seem to have a real sense of who you are. And is that something you try to really get out there to people, and do you feel that’s what endears you to your teammates and your coaches?

STETSON BENNETT: I don’t know. I’ve always kind of felt like you can’t really — maybe some people can — tell people what to think about me or something. I just kind of am who I am. And I try to be the best person I can be, football and in life. And I don’t really know why people like me, but if that’s why it is, then so be it.

Q. One of the things we saw against Michigan was an incredible blocking scheme on the edge that really freed guys up. What was practice like in that offensive week leading up that really made that crisp for you guys, that opened up the offense?

STETSON BENNETT: First things first, we can’t do anything on either side of the ball if we don’t win up front. That’s the start of football, always has been and always will be. And we knew that they had those two guys on the edge and we knew they were going to be coming for my head. And Jamaree and Warren and all the guys inside, they took a — they kind of felt slighted a bit by the Joe Moore Award going to Michigan.

And they knew what everybody was writing and what everybody was saying, that those two guys would ruin the game for us. And they took it as a personal challenge, and they were focused and locked in the whole week, and they played their butts off.

Q. Did you need that Michigan performance, did you need that at all for any, reinforce any maybe one percent of one percent doubt that you might have had coming off the SEC game. And jokingly, did you hear from any heart surgeons out there asking for some advice?

STETSON BENNETT: Like I said after the game, I thought I played all right in the SEC Championship game. I made a few mistakes that you can’t do against a good team. But I also made some really good throws, good decisions. So my main focus going into the Michigan game was cleaning up on the mistakes and keep doing what I had been doing well.

There was no personal doubt. I knew what I had to do. Felt like I needed to play that well to beat a team like Michigan because of who they are and how talented they are. But it wasn’t to prove anything to me that I could play football in this league.

And no, no heart surgeons have reached out, unfortunately.

Q. I think as far as your offensive skill position players around you, Zamir White is only 12th in rushing yards, and Brock is only ninth in receiving yards. But so much of that obviously as you know is guys cannibalize each other’s stats because you have so many. Do you all ever go into the game with a plan, we want to get this guy X amount of touches or showcase this guy X amount of times or something along those lines to kind of spread out things?

STETSON BENNETT: No. We know the guys that we have on our team who we think are game-changers. And so we want to get the ball in those guys’ hands. But as far as, like, when the play starts, I throw it to who’s open. I’m not — there’s certain times when it’s man-to-man, and it’s matchups — when you think have you the matchup you want, then you go there.

But it’s never, we haven’t gotten this guy as many touches as he needs. Maybe Monk calls a game like that, maybe he calls a few plays like that; I’ll leave it to him. But when the ball snaps for me, unless it’s those specific matchup scenarios, I just read it out and I throw it to the guy I think is open.

And I think that’s the strength of this team on offense and defense. Our defensive scheme doesn’t — like Michigan, they wide bust. Those two guys go for sacks.

Us, we play more complementary defense. And I think the same way on offense. Brock’s obviously had, I think, maybe the greatest year for a tight end in Georgia history. But like I said, Zamir doesn’t have the yardage in the SEC ranking, but we’re in the national championship.

So I think our guys kind of know what matters, and if we’re scoring points and if we’re stopping people from scoring points, it doesn’t really matter who is getting credit as long as the team is doing well. And I think our guys really understand that.

Q. How does the preparation change or vary when you’re playing a team for the second time? Is it something you’ve ever done before maybe at the high school level?

STETSON BENNETT: I guess it would change, but watching a good bit of the previous game. But as far as the schedule and what I’m going to watch day to day, no, that’s not going to change.

And to answer your question, no, I’ve never, I don’t believe, played the same team twice in a season. But preparation is going to be the same. The respect’s going to be the same. How we go about our day to day is going to be the same. That’s what’s got us here, and that’s what we’re going to stick with.

Q. You’re a Georgia guy. You know the history of the program. Do you have a sense of the magnitude of what this means to people in Georgia, longtime Georgia, long-suffering Georgia fans? And of course you were there in 2017 when Alabama sort of crushed those hopes on this stage before. Does that bear any meaning back of your mind, sort of the history that comes with it?

STETSON BENNETT: Maybe I’m not capable of holding that weight on my shoulders, but, no, I’m just treating it as a football game. Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people? Yes. Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No. I don’t think that’s my job.

My job is to go out there and throw completions to very talented people we have on this team. And I think it’s as simple as that.

So, yes, I know it means a lot to a lot of people. Is it just another game? No, I’m not silly. But I don’t think for 20-year-old kids you can put that kind of pressure on yourself because you might go crazy.

I’m just treating it as another game and I’m preparing my butt off, and everybody on this team is. But the reason we’re doing that is because we respect the heck out of Alabama and the team they are. And we know we’ll have to give it our best shot to win this game.

Q. Coach says all the time, recruiting stars, your recruiting ranking doesn’t matter when you show up. But as a player, how aware are you of that, and how, if at all, does it factor into, hey, I should be playing earlier or I should be playing over this guy?

STETSON BENNETT: I can’t speak to the five stars in the room. I wasn’t one. I mean, yeah, coaches say that, but it’s, like, those guys are going to get every opportunity to fail before a walk-on gets an opportunity to succeed. I’ll put it that way.

It’s just business. If you recruit all these five stars and then you play walk-ons over every single one of them, who is to say the next five star is not going to see that and not come here?

Usually five stars are better than walk-ons. That’s typically how it goes. But I don’t know. I think our team does a good job of — our players do a good job of not really worrying about five star, who — this and that when you walk in the door because all that stuff is over, it’s wiped out.

I don’t even know who our five stars are from this last class, I don’t know any recruiting. I know we did well like we typically do because our staff does a great job. But I don’t know who was ranked where because I really don’t care. And I’ll tell you every single senior on this team feels the same way.

So I’m sure the coaches are aware and every single media person in the entire universe is aware. But, no, the players are not aware.

Q. What has Coach Monken meant for your development over your career?

STETSON BENNETT: Tons. He’s a great coach, extremely knowledgeable. There’s a lot of times where I wasn’t playing, so I had to take that development on my own and do that stuff. But the meeting time and just listening to him talk — he likes to talk — but just listening to him talk in the meetings, that’s invaluable.

Those things are — I mean that’s why he gets paid what he gets paid, just to talk to people like us, to make us better and obviously to play hard.

But just sitting there trying to be a sponge, trying to write down everything I can write down, trying to learn from somebody who has been in this business for 35 years at the highest level. Obviously I’m a lot better than I was last year. So that’s helped.

Q. A little bit more on playing a second time. Obviously you want to play better against Alabama, but you don’t know that you’re going to see the same stuff that you saw from Alabama last time. But you might. I mean, tell me about the line that you’re sort of, you and Coach Monk and everybody, are tiptoeing about: Do we expect them to do this again and we need to do this better? I’m sure that gets really down in the weeds before y’all finally get to this game, right? How difficult is it to play somebody a second time, or do you know yet about the complications of not knowing if they’re going to do the same thing or if they’ll do things slightly different this time?

STETSON BENNETT: I guess, are you going to outsmart yourself? Are you going to over think everything? No. We are not. Obviously when we go out on the field, would I prefer for Alabama if they’re going to change anything up to send us an e-mail this week? I would love that, but I assume they won’t.

So we’re going to prepare with what they’ve put on tape. And obviously other — we’re going to stick with their tendencies, just the same way I do every week, and be ready to adjust, say they come out in a completely different defense.

But I would be willing to bet they’re not because they’re here in the national championship. They’re not going to change up and go all Arkansas on us. They’re not going to do that. They’re going to be Alabama. And we’re going to be Georgia. And we’re going to see who executes better. And if there is a wrinkle come Monday night from either side, then whoever adjusts best to that will win the football game.

Q. Coach Smart throughout this whole season has had your back every single time we’ve asked about you. What does that mean to you have your head coach have your back like that?

STETSON BENNETT: It feels good. Obviously it’s better than the other way. It feels nice and I appreciate it from him.

Q. You’re clearly level headed about the big picture here. But I’m wondering if you and your family have had a time to talk about, appreciate where you have come from, where you are right now and the opportunity that’s in front of you and what it means to you on a personal level?

STETSON BENNETT: No, we haven’t had time to sit down and break it all down. I’m sure that will be a long talk. But I appreciate everybody giving my story so much attention. But every single player on this team, even though they’re more highly recruited, they all came from a little high school with no such — the players with the ginormous high schools. But most of the guys on our team came from small schools in Georgia.

They haven’t seen the splendor of a college football national championship yet. They’ve never experienced that. Maybe they went to the Army All-American game. But they’ve been working just as hard as I have for just as long as I have.

So to answer your question, no, we haven’t sat down and talked about it. But it’s not like I’m the only one who has done so much for themselves because of where they started. Every single player on this team has worked hard to get to play in the national championship.

And hopefully after this season, after this game, hopefully we play well enough to beat a great Bama team. And then hopefully every single one of us can sit down and talk about, wow, did you see how bright those lights were? That was pretty awesome. So we’ll see when that time comes.

DERION KENDRICK, DB

Q. You mentioned during your MVP acceptance speech, after the Orange Bowl, Georgia taking a chance on you or giving you a chance, I guess I should say. Can you elaborate just more on that and what that means to you and how quickly you were able to fit in in this program?

DERION KENDRICK: Everybody, if you follow football, everybody knows what happened in my situation. Being thrown into the portal, nobody had to take a chance on me at all but they did.

And when I got here, I mean, I just fit in, just doing what I do, just came in, put my head down and put in the work. They accepted me for who I was and not what happened in the past.

Q. Stetson just talked about the offensive line and how great they played against Michigan, and how maybe the offensive line took the Joe Moore Award going to Michigan as a slight, as a challenge. Seemed like Alabama did the same thing against y’all, because y’all have one of the best defenses in college football history. Do you think that served as motivation for Alabama in the first meeting with y’all? And do you all figure to match that intensity on Monday night?

DERION KENDRICK: We should be motivated every time we step on the field regardless of what awards or whatever is going on. And they just had — they’re a great team. They came out on top last game.

Q. You guys didn’t have much success against Jameson Williams the first time around. What have you got to do differently?

DERION KENDRICK: Just gotta lock in, do what we normally do, don’t try to do too much. And just everybody make plays, just top collegiate level. So everybody is going to make plays. It’s about what you do next play.

Q. Wondering from your experience at Clemson if there was anything you learned or had your eyes opened to that has impacted how you’ve been or what you’ve been able to do at Georgia?

DERION KENDRICK: I had great coaches there, and they taught me ways to be a better person, become a better football player as well. And I just took those things and just put them into myself and my game so I could just elevate on and off the field.

Q. I wanted to ask you, Coach Saban was talking about Brock Bowers, called him one of the premier players in college football. You’ve had a different look at him. You’ve had a long look at him. What do you think of Brock and what he’s done for your guys’ offense this year? And when did you know that he was capable of doing something like he’s done this year?

DERION KENDRICK: I see it almost every day, giving like flashes and stuff. He’s a great player, always working. He works hard. When you work hard, usually good things happen in return.

So I just knew early in the season he had a game where he had three touchdowns. I believe it was UAB or something, I knew right there that he was going to be great.

Q. Kirby was talking about Bryce’s ability to always keep his eyes up, and that was one of the main factors for his success the last time you met. What kind of problems does that present a corner? And your thoughts on the challenge going against him one more time?

DERION KENDRICK: I mean, we’ve just got to be disciplined. Can’t try to do too much. Gotta do our job, which our job is to cover the receivers and let everybody else do their job. Can’t let nobody run free.

Q. Outside of the SEC, it’s apparent to a lot of people that the growth of college football is dependent on the sport breaking out of the SEC. And some people are saying we’ve already seen this matchup before and it’s all SEC. Why do you think that a Georgia/Bama matchup, even though it’s an SEC matchup, is still good for the growth of college football?

DERION KENDRICK: I believe it’s just like — it’s a great matchup. Every time we play it’s always back and forth. So I feel like everybody is going to enjoy this game, great teams, great coaches, and always have great players. So everybody is just tuning into this game. And it’s also SEC. Everybody believes that SEC is the best conference in college football.

Q. You’ve played in national championship games, you’re a guy on the Georgia team that’s beaten Bama before. Is that anything you’ve shared with your teammates, your experiences?

DERION KENDRICK: Everybody knows that my freshman year we won or whatever. And that year I was on a different side of the ball. I wasn’t really tuned into their offense. I was more likely tuned into their defense.

Just like giving them keys to where we just gotta stay focused, do what we’ve got to do, just watch extra film, take care of (indiscernible) and stuff like that.

Q. I wanted to ask you because you have that perspective being both at Georgia and being at a different school. But does it feel like there’s almost a mental block that Georgia might have towards Alabama, in that Alabama is someone that, this program always is in these absolute dogfights of games with, and often Georgia is the one to walk away with a loss in heartbreaking fashion?

DERION KENDRICK: I mean, I haven’t been here long enough to answer that question. So I’m not sure.

Q. We haven’t had a chance to talk to you all year. So I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about playing against Clemson. I know that was the opener and a long time ago. I guess if you could just tell me what that was like going against a former team. We’ll see more and more of that with guys in the portal. Secondly, does it seem like a lifetime ago for you, too, or is that game still fresh on your mind?

DERION KENDRICK: I feel like it was really God just putting me in the opportunity to play in that big game at that moment. Somebody that I’ve been with for three years, a great coaching staff. Also people who I came in with my recruiting class, just being able to play against them and just being on a different side, it was a blessing.

Q. You’re obviously here as kind of the spokesman for the defense. So just overall, obviously the last game was one that we hadn’t seen the defense play like that all year and hasn’t since. So just, can you just speaking for the entire defense, what does it feel like getting another shot at this? And is it a totally different approach? Just got to be the same approach and do better this time?

DERION KENDRICK: Same approach, but different attitude. You’ve got to go out there, do what we do because we didn’t play a good game at all on the defensive side of the ball. We’ve got to help the offense out as well. So that’s how I feel about it.

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